- MacLean SA, et al. Soc Sci Med. 2019;230:303-308, http://bit.ly/2WxUBFN.
Children being held in immigration detention centers at the U.S. border have higher rates of emotional distress than other children in the U.S., especially if they have been separated from their mother, researchers found.
They interviewed 425 mothers being held in an immigration detention center with at least one child between the ages of 4 and 17. On average, the women had been detained about nine days when they completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in 2018.
About 32% of the children had abnormal scores for emotional symptoms, 14% had abnormal scores for peer problems, 8% had abnormal hyperactivity scores and 8% had abnormal conduct problem scores.
Scores for those four areas were added together to create a “total difficulties” score. About 10% of the children were outside the normal range for total difficulties compared to 5% of U.S. children who have emotional or behavioral problems.
Children ages 4-8 had higher rates of abnormal scores for conduct, hyperactivity and total difficulties than older children.
Those who had been separated from their mother also had higher rates of abnormal scores. For example, 49% demonstrated emotional issues compared to 29% of those who hadn’t been separated. Likewise, 15% of separated children were in the abnormal range for total difficulties, compared to 9% of children who hadn’t been separated.
Researchers also surveyed 150 of the children ages 9-17 years about post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms they may have experienced in the past month. Those surveys showed 17% had a probable diagnosis compared to 4.7% of adolescents in the U.S.
Authors noted they could not say whether the detention caused the emotional and behavioral issues children experienced. They acknowledged experiences in the home country or the journey to the U.S. also could be factors and stressed the need for these children to receive specialized mental health care.
“Although we cannot say whether detention contributed to the mental health issues of the detained children, we are not aware that these services are available in detention, making it all the more crucial that time in detention be limited or eliminated for children,” author Craig L. Katz, M.D., said in a statement. “And, we can say clearly that our data confirms that separating immigrant children from their mothers is bad for their mental health.”